Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"What Value for a Degree?" Part 2: Inherent value.

To continue from yesterday's post about the "relative value" created when education is a scarce commodity, today I'll write about inherent value--that which we are assumed to obtain simply by completing an educational credential.

Governments are concerned with developing "human capital", which is the value of the workforce as measured by people's skills and capacities for economic production. The argument is that the “knowledge economy” requires more and different skills of the workforce. This assumes that everyone should have more education because education will develop these skills (as economic value that resides in people). So by extension, there is an assumption that education has an inherent value—as something that contributes to the economy through the gross increase of human capital—no matter whether there are better jobs waiting for the graduates.

An assumption of inherent value also means that a financial payoff is assumed for the individual—so there is (economic) value in education for the individual student (or graduate, at least). This dovetails with the current (neo-liberal) policy trend of privatising the sources of PSE funding, including through raising tuition fees. Individual value means individual benefit, and therefore individuals should pay for this benefit.

But as discussed in my previous post, education does not benefit every student equally, so taking an “average” increase to earnings over a lifetime—which is the most frequent means used to “prove” the monetary worth of an investment in PSE—is not the best means of assessing the positive effects of higher education for the most vulnerable/least privileged students, who could benefit most significantly from them.


In government policy there seems to be a confusion between an inherent value created by a university education (i.e. skills, training, knowledge) and the relative value of a scarce commodity. But what does this difference in concepts of “value” mean when it comes to public debates about education, and the kinds of policies that generate and are in turn influenced by those debates-?

It tends to mean that we fight for university accessibility primarily in the form of increased enrollments, then wonder why attrition rates are so high and why so many students seem to “fail” at maximizing the resources provided by universities (such as student services). It means that governments create targets for the number of university graduates to be “produced” and for the percentage of the workforce that should possess a degree, assuming the additional human capital will generate returns to national economic success--but that many graduates nonetheless find themselves struggling to get work due to a lack of jobs appropriate to their level of education. Never mind ballooning debt loads, since personal financial “returns” to education should take care of this (unequally distributed) burden.

But if there is no job waiting at the end of an expensive degree, then the personal “investment” made by the student is seen as a failed venture for which s/he takes primary responsibility (particularly if student debt is involved).

In the UK right now we can see a clear example of this logic at work. As the system has expanded continuing to use the elite model of governance, costs have increased while the economy has become increasingly volatile. Government response is to radically reduce funding for teaching and to allow universities to raise tuition. Students are told they must now pay for something that in the past was more or less free (i.e. for their parents), a situation that creates inter-generational resentment, producing as it does a lopsided distribution of payment for the lingering costs of expansion.

Yet students will continue to enroll (if places are provided), since university degrees are considered more necessary now, for more people, than ever in the past. It seems that the cost of education rises, and indeed the value diminishes, with increased demand--the opposite of how markets are supposed to work.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"What value for a degree?" Part 1: Relative Value

A friend of mine, who teaches at an English-speaking middle school in Hong Kong, recently asked me if I think too many people are going to college (university).

I think about this a lot, since completion and participation targets are often in the PSE news and in policy. I always find it a hard question to answer—partly because answer means asking ourselves about the purpose of a university education, and what precisely it is about university degrees that they are somehow assumed to equip young people with what it takes to succeed (economically) in the world. What is it that makes a university degree valuable and why is this important?

The focus for students, parents and governments is significantly economic, in policy and in practice—something that has become more the case over time as universities have moved towards “massification” (expansion) and more emphasis on private sources of funding (including tuition).

The benefits of post-secondary (and particularly university) education are expected to increase both the prosperity of individuals and the competitiveness of the national economy. So why is it important to question both the "graduation imperative" as economic policy, and the "accessibility" ideal as progressive social policy?

While in the past it was true that people who earned university degrees then went on to have more economic success, this was partly because university education was an elite education. No more than 5 to 10% of the population had a degree, so it was a valuable thing to have. Higher education usually meant training to be part of an elite; for example, the traditional “liberal education” was training for a small, privileged group who would become the “leaders of society” in law, politics and business.

In a sense, we’re now saying that as many people as possible should have an education of this kind, which means that by definition a university degree ceases to be “elite” in the way described, or to provide any value based on scarcity. This doesn’t mean there is no other kind of value—only that a degree will no longer provide the benefits of a scarce commodity (to the extent that it did in the past). It also means that universities are and will be using more tactics to explicitly demonstrate the value of what they offer (marketing, advertising).

In a system in which we rank and label people, a lack of obvious comparative value creates a problem, since we need to differentiate in order to allocate. If in the past the university degree acted as a filtration mechanism or a stamp of elite approval, it was the case that you had to have money, family/social connections, and/or a lot of smarts and savvy to get one. But how does this “filtering” happen when everyone gets a degree?

The cynical (or perhaps realistic) answer is that a relatively “elite” group will still form, and it does; filtration still happens because our system is driven by a capitalist economic model that works as a hierarchy driven by competition. People are ranked (using grades, for example), and it’s understood that this is more or less a zero-sum game. And some people still start out with far, far more than others when it comes to securing the highest spots in that ranking.

Yet most education systems are premised at least to some extent on the concept of meritocracy, the idea that people succeed based on “merit” or “excellence” alone, rather than through forms of extrinsic (often material) advantage. Though we have plenty of examples to support the idea that meritocracy functions fairly—e.g. working-class kids who “make good”—the wealthier and well-connected students still tend to get the best jobs in the current climate, no matter how many others may have university degrees. And from the inside, it tends look like this is because of differences in cultural, social and economic capital, rather than "merit" alone.


Coming up soon, in Part 2! Does education have an inherent value in this context? Human capital, personal 'investment', and unequal/unexpected 'returns'.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Performing Professors

As an amusing follow-up to the last post, about humour, here is an article that coincidentally appeared in the New York Times, discussing professors who have been using stand-up comedy as a means of diversifying the "audiences" for their research work. Fascinating to see "public science" being taken into this arena...

Friday, December 10, 2010

Go on, have a laugh

This week’s long and rambling post, after a hiatus of about a month, comes out of my thoughts about the tutorial group I’ve been working with this term.

After each class, on the bus ride home, I think through the things that seemed to work and the things that didn’t. Which students were really engaged in class, and who was tuned out, playing on a laptop or sending text messages? Did we use media in the class and did that work well for the group? Did we look in a deeper way at the key points from the week’s readings, or did we spend a lot of time on irrelevant tangents? Perhaps most important, what was the overall dynamic in the room and did it help or hinder the discussion of issues important to the course?

Last week, I was “chuffed” when a student said she had remembered the meaning of a term based on a joke (a humourous anecdote) I had told about it. Her comment made me think about how humour is something I use in class, in a number of ways according to context—and I realise now that I’ve been 'using' it right from the moment I stepped into a classroom to teach for the first time. It turns out that my teaching role models are my favourite stand-up comedians as well as the best professors.

This led me to ask: What's the function of humour in the classroom?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that humour, being humour, simply isn’t taken seriously as a pedagogical tool.

And yet there's a use for it. When I was first learning how to lead tutorials, humour had the function if dissipating my own sense of awkwardness at the situation. Since I wasn’t used to taking on authority, and didn’t feel comfortable with that role (i.e. the kinds of expectations there were from the students), the laughter made it easier for me to deflect and dissolve my own anxiety and that of the students as well as creating a “cushion” for those times when I felt incompetent and unhelpful (usually this was just my own perception as I later learned). Another effect was that students seemed to feel more comfortable in a classroom where a few laughs were encouraged.

To me, humour has also been a means of highlighting the ridiculousness of 'normality', which is an entry point to critique (for example I showed this sketch in tutorial, as a way of addressing essentialism). I can't count the number of times I've found myself inadvertently 'opening up' (making accessible) a perfectly 'serious' issue by making a joke.

Humour is an important strategy when lecturing with a large class, as well. In some ways, the skills demonstrated by stand-up comedians could be seen as a pretty fair fit with those required of lecturers in the university setting--keeping the attention of a large audience for a couple of hours without them being distracted, in such a way that afterwards they somehow remember what you talked about. Those skills are applicable across boundaries. And just as many professors make jokes about their academic material, many of the best comedians have a serious point driving their work.

Two of my favourite performers of stand-up comedy are Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Like all successful stand-ups, Bailey (who is English) and Moran (Irish) have 'trademark' on-stage styles. From Moran's shows, what strikes me in terms of applicability to teaching are his uses of narrative, creative language, and vocal modulation. In this clip, he discusses the idea of having untapped personal "potential": "leave [it] absolutely alone", he advises, before launching into a lengthy, fantastically detailed description of what you imagine your potential to be ("flamingos serving drinks")--as opposed to what it actually is. Like the best lectures, this performance is impossible to re-create through quotes alone because Moran's style is the greater part of what makes the material funny and engaging.

Bill Bailey, on the other hand, has a way of soliciting responses from the audience and incorporating them into his act; he also takes slight in-the-moment thoughts and accidental slips and turns them into commentary and productive tangents. In one section of his show "Part Troll", he involves the audience in making the sound of "a giant breaking a twig", then invites them to shout out the names of famous vegetarians (which he re-imagines as a horse-race). Bailey has a knack for creatively incorporating the unexpected into his 'act', in ways that generate relevant connections without losing the overall 'thread'. I think this translates as an important classroom skill because it can help to involve students in a discussion, if we can relate their contributions, their experiences and examples, to a theme that's part of the course--without 'losing' the point at hand.

I don't consider teaching to be all 'performance'--and not all humour is helpful or appropriate in the classroom. But after watching so many tedious, montonous lectures in which students (in some ways justifiably) tuned out of the course and in to their iPhones and laptops, I've developed an appreciation for presentation--and I'll take my role models where I can find them-!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Passing Around the Kudos

This week I was given a rather generous mention in someone else's blog, specifically the excellent Margin Notes (a University Affairs blog) written by Léo Charbonneau (@Margin_Notes on Twitter). Thanks for that, Léo! And now in the cheery spirit of "tag! You're it", I thought I'd share some of my own favourite higher education news resources; this includes blogs, Twitterers, and websites, all parts of the odds-and-ends collection of sources from which I draw my daily gulp of PSE news and commentary.

Jo Van Every's blog is a great resource; Jo is an "academic career coach", and her blog offers great career advice whether you're a grad student or a mid-career academic. She's is also a great conversationalist on Twitter (@jovanevery).

I also recommend College Ready Writing by Lee Skallerup Bessette, who is another prolific Tweeter (@readywriting) as well as somehow finding the time to teach full-time at the post-secondary level and to write many excellent blog posts about pedagogy, writing, and academic career choices.

Higher Ed Watch--never heard of a "sub-prime student loan"? Check out this excellent (U.S.) policy blog, where there is regular critical and detailed commentary about for-profit colleges, student loans, and other aspects of post-secondary governance and political economy.

Inside Higher Ed, another U.S. site with an impressive round-up of PSE news every day. The site also includes a series of blogs dedicated to commentary on specific topics in higher education.

Hook and Eye and University of Venus (here at Inside Higher Ed)--both blogs are written by and about women in the academy, and both offer a range of thoughtful contributions from regular editors and guest bloggers (@fishhookopeneye, @UVenus).

Two feeds I have plugged in to on Google Reader are the "news" and "media scan" feeds from University Affairs Magazine (@UA_Magazine)--an efficient way to keep up with the latest in Canadian PSE news.

I'd like also to make a point of dropping the names of a few fellow Tweeters who've participated in some pretty interesting PSE-themed conversations over the past wee while: this includes Mary Churchill (@mary_churchill), one of the founders of University of Venus; Mary-Helen Ward (@witty_knitter); and Janni Aragon (@janniaragon), as well as Jo Van Every and Lee Skallerup Bessette (see above).

And last but obviously not least, for an interesting blog-in-the-life of a Canadian university professor, check out my friend Alex Sevigny's blog (he's also on Twitter at @alexsevigny). Alex writes about his experiences as a prof and a professional communicator.